UP EXPERT OPINION: Tor Sellström: a champion of Africa’s liberation struggle

Posted on October 03, 2022

Professor Adekeye Adebajo reflects on the life of Tor Sellström, a celebrated researcher in the area of liberation struggles in Southern Africa and an advocate of social justice and human rights. 

Tor Sellström, who recently died in Uppsala at the age of 75 after a long battle with cancer, was a cultured and cosmopolitan Swede who contributed greatly to Southern Africa’s liberation struggle.

Born into a solidly middle-class family in the central Swedish city of Västerås on Lake Malaren, he attended the universities of Stockholm, Barcelona and the elite Paris Institute of Political Studies, becoming a polyglot and fluent speaker of Swedish, Spanish, French and English. He was part of the “Eurorail generation” that set out to create a common European identity, long before Sweden belatedly joined the EU in 1995.

Sellström looked beyond Europe to study and support liberation struggles in Latin America, getting arrested by the military in Chile in 1973 just before the coup d’état that toppled the revolutionary regime of Salvador Allende. These efforts resulted in his book, Mass Mobilization & People Power in Chile, 1970-1973.  

From 1977 he devoted the next two decades to backing liberation struggles in Southern Africa. Starting with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Angola, he supported Namibia’s South West Africa People’s Organisation. Joining the Swedish International Development co-operation Agency (Sida), he spent the next decade in Zambia, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe, co-ordinating support to liberation movements across Southern Africa.

In Lusaka, he got to know Thabo and Zanele Mbeki and much of the ANC’s exiled leadership. After Namibia’s independence in 1990, Tor contributed to building the new nation’s research capacity, serving as deputy director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit. He co-authored Kassinga: A Story Untold with Namibian journalist-poet, Mvula ya Nangolo, on the 1978 massacre of Namibian civilians and soldiers in Angola by the apartheid air force  

Tor then joined the Sweden-based Nordic Africa Institute in 1994, producing his magnum opus: a meticulously-documented three-volume history of Sweden and National Liberation in Southern Africa, an outstanding work that will be his major intellectual legacy. He returned to postapartheid SA with Sida in 2002 to work as an economic counsellor at the Swedish embassy in Pretoria, which is where I first encountered him.

I was always struck by his encyclopedic erudition, good humour and total identification with Africa’s liberation struggles. He was the only donor I met in two decades who questioned the lavish support for members of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS), which was accused of helping to craft destabilisation policies for the apartheid government that wrought deadly destruction across Southern Africa.

Before leaving SA, Sellström worked with the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes in Durban as a senior adviser, again mentoring local researchers.

Another enduring intellectual contribution Tor made was a magisterial chapter on the UN Trusteeship Council in a book I edited in 2009, Africa and the UN. In this historically grounded essay he detailed how the UN had worked with the Organisation of African Unity to create new norms and principles of self-determination, and to devise innovative methods to support the independence of non-self-governing territories, as well as the liberation struggles in Algeria, Zimbabwe, Namibia, SA, Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau.

Cosmopolitan Swede

He highlighted the role of Tanzanian diplomat Salim Ahmed Salim in adroitly steering the UN Decolonisation Committee, which helped mobilise humanitarian support and legal recognition — often in the teeth of opposition from powerful apartheid-supporting Western governments — for Africa’s liberation movements.

SA’s deputy foreign minister, Alvin Botes, described Sellström as “an exemplary international diplomat, a jewel of our time, a man of unparalleled courage and towering achievement, and a man of dignity and deep humanity.”

The cosmopolitan Swede not only researched and wrote the history of Southern Africa’s liberation, he lived it. He is survived by his wife Angela Muvumba Sellström, his son Erik, and his sisters Kajsa and Ebba.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

This article first appeared in Business Day on 2 October 2022.

- Author Professor Adekeye Adebajo

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